Tag Archives: Cape Breton – fiction

A Picture Book which truly Enlightens | Review of “Town Is by the Sea.” Written by Joanne Schwartz and Illustrated by Sydney Smith (2017) Groundwood Books


The beauty of any book occurs when it documents a common theme to a reader while being set in an unique locale. A reader empathizes with the central character while learning about the location, which is simply why many of us enjoy reading and looking at books. And that is exactly what occurs when one looks at Town Is by the Sea written by Joanne Schwartz and illustrated by Sydney Smith.

When I wake up, it goes like this –

first I hear the seagulls, then I hear a dog barking,

a car goes by on the shore road, someone slams a

door and yells good morning.

And along the road, lupine and Queen Anne’s lace

rustle in the wind.

First thing I see when I look

out the window is the sea.

And I know my father is already deep

down under that sea, digging for coal.

I love the feeling this perfect mix of illustrations and words give this book. The story deals with a young boy going through his busy day on a coastal village yet mindful of his father’s hard work digging for coal deep under the sea. Schwartz’s words are poetic and lyrical while Smith’s illustrations are profound yet simple. Flipping through this book is an enlightening experience for any reader of any age.


“From my house, I can see the sea.” Illustration by Sydney Smith

This is a work that is simply well-crafted. It, no doubt, took time, care and planning to bring this volume together. And it works well. It enlightens while it simply engages a reader. Worthy of anybody’s few moments in a quiet corner to reflect over.

“My father is a miner and he works under the sea, deep down in the coal mines.” Illustration by Sydney Smith

While this book may take place in a different time and place for many of us, it helps us understand a small section of the human condition a bit better. We relate to the little boy’s experience but we gain a simple understanding of what his father’s role was at that time. Enlightenment comes easy with this book.

Author’s Note

If you were a boy in the mining towns of Cape Breton – or, indeed, a child in any mining town in the world – during the late 1800s and early 1900s, you might well have faced the prospect of going to work in the mines at the young age of nine or ten, enduring twelve-hour days in the harsh, dangerous and dark reality underground. Decades later, the life of these towns still revolved around the mines. Even into the 1950s, around the time when this story takes place, boys of high-school age, carrying on the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, continued to see their future working in the mines.

This was the legacy of a mining town.

Town Is by the Sea is a great example of a great piece of literature, even though it is a ‘picture book.’ Joanne Schwartz’s words blend well together with Sydney Smith’s illustration to tell a unique story.


Link to Groundwood Books/House of Anansi’s website for Town Is by the Sea.

Link to Sydney Smith’s tumblr “Sketchbook”

Getting to Know Cape Breton Better | Review of “The Promised Land” by Bill Conall (2013) Boularderie Island Press


We all have heard about sections of our country from school days. Cape Breton Island is one of those places. Yes, it is an island on the northeastern part of Nova Scotia, etc. etc. turn the page. But it is until we read literature from this area that we are given a full understanding of the culture of the island. And that is exactly what Bill Conall has done with his novel The Promised Land: A novel of Cape Breton.

The Loch Broom (Page 28)

There was some weather this morning. From all around the harbour cam the sounds of boats rubbing at their  moorings as the water lifted and lowered the fleet, again and again. With the wind was rain as well, driving in from the east. The sky, which would normally have been showing some light over the Bird Islands, was as black as the inside of a cow. Frank’s own insides reflected the action of the boats against the wharf, tossing unpleasantly even before he set foot on the Loch Broom .

His first day of lobstering was the longest of Frank’s young life, to date. He had not slept well, anxious about being able to do a good job on the first day so that would get a crack at the second day, and then the third. When he finally fell asleep the night before, it seemed like only minutes until the alarm went off at 2:30 a.m. He poured icy water into the bathroom sink; splashed it on his face to wake up. Stumbling downstairs, he was astonished to see the whole family there in the kitchen to send him off.

Conall’s descriptions are completely vivid. One can clearly sense the sights and sounds he writes about here. But what is truly wonderful here is the way he captures complete personalities with his words, giving new insight to the Cape Breton region for all of us.

Twins (Page 177)

School was out for the summer and both boys could feel the comforting weight of the week’s allowance in their denim pockets. It wouldn’t be there long, for the store, with its chocolate bars and toffee and soda pop, was not a mile away. They climbed up and down over the big rocks at the tide line; ran barefoot on the sand ahead of the returning water; collected and discarded enough empty shells, mussel shells, oyster shells, snail shells, crab shells and flimsy remnants of desiccated lobster.

“Let’s go up to the store and get a pop!”

John Thomas MacInnes was twelve minutes older than his brother, with hair as black as Cape Breton coal and built like one of the sturdy little pit ponies that had been used to haul the coal carts to the surface back in the day. John Michael MacInnes was the taller by an inch or two, with auburn hair that teetered toward red in sunlight. Were John Thomas had the physical strength and determination to get himself out of mischief, John Michael tended to think a bit further ahead to avoid getting into it in the first place.

“Let’s play some more, then when we get it, it’ll taste way better,” he suggested.

It is a certain flavour that Conall gives to the book that readers can taste what Cape Breton is like. It is that flavour that no history book or travel brochure can give to the region that only a piece of literature can give.

Tha ‘n Geamhradh a’Tighinn (Is the Winter Coming) Page 80

Perhaps osmosis is the best way to describe the gradual integration of the two communities, those of the Hippies and the North Shore locals; a slow, inevitable coming-together of similar but disparate groups of people. And as it so  often does, love helped to overcome the remaining barriers between the two groups as the children of the city and the children of f the Cape met and mingled and sometimes married. And the children of those unions were true hybrids, often combining the best of both sides their genetic and cultural heritage.

The same thing happened in other parts of the Island as well. Cape Breton – ever so slightly altered by the addition of some new people and the departure of others – was enriched by the spring-like births of babies, diminished again by the departures of the young and the autumnal deaths of the elderly. The land and sea provided for the  people, and for each other.

Weather and season and tides came and went as they always have done. Sun and rain brought the crops to fullness and to harvest. And year after year, like a boy at his first dance, the snow came cautiously forward, shied away, worked up its courage, tried again and finally crossed the floor to take the hand of winter. And they danced until they could dance no more.

The Promised Land: A novel of Cape Breton by Bill Conall is a fantastic novel which enlightens readers to the Cape Breton region. A great read.


Link to Bill Conall’s WordPress site

Link to Boularderie Island Press WordPress site